Senator Thistlethwaite: First Speech

Matt Thistlethwaite, Senator for New South Wales

First Speech - 18/08/2011

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (17:00): Thank you, Mr President. I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and pay my respects to their elders. In 1972, a wharfie working at Sydney's Hungry Mile docks was seriously injured when he fell from a container on a ship that he was unloading. He suffered numerous injuries. He fractured his pelvis and his arm, injured his back and suffered internal injuries. As a result of these injuries he would never work again as a wharfie, he would never earn the same level of income and he and his wife would never own their own home. He was hospitalised for five weeks. His rehabilitation took six months.

During this time he received no support or assistance from his employer, whom he had served for 30 years. Not once did a representative of the company that he was proud to work for contact him to check on his wellbeing or his family. In times when workers compensation did not adequately cover a worker's lost income, this hardworking family man worried about how he would get by. How would they keep their house and pay their bills with little income? But the family did get by. And they did manage to survive financially for one simple reason—he was a member of his union, the Waterside Workers Federation. That wharfie, Cliff Spradbrow, was my grandfather.

Each week the union organiser, Tas Bull, would visit Cliff in hospital and he also gave assistance to my grandmother, Mary. Cliffs' mates at work passed the hat around and with the union ensured that there was money to keep paying the rent and bills. The union secretary regularly called to check on Cliff's welfare and ensured that the family never went without. My grandmother regularly tells me of her gratitude to the union during that testing time.

An appreciation for the role that trade unions play in our workplaces and our society was instilled in me from an early age. My other grandfather, Ralph Thistlethwaite, worked in the Postmaster-General's Department for 48 years. He was a morse code specialist. He was also a life member and NSW branch secretary of his union, the Australian Postmasters Association. My father, Bruce, was the vice-president of his union, the Flight Attendants Association.

My parents embody those great working class values of their generation: hard work, fairness and community activism. Because of the sacrifices my parents made, I was the first in my family to gain a university education. I thank and pay tribute to my parents, Bruce and Lorraine, for their sacrifice, their support and their belief and also for planting and nurturing in me the values of fairness, participation and hard work.

Involvement in the community was a value that was upheld in my family. My grandfather Ralph was a life member of the South Sydney Rugby League Football Club. For 25 years he was involved in the administration of the club and he volunteered at every Souths game for most of his life. 'Always support the Rabbitohs and always vote Labor,' he would say. Despite the fact that the Rabbitohs regularly test my faith, I am pleased to inform the Senate that I have never deviated from this advice. For many years, during my time as a university student, I worked at the South Sydney Junior Rugby League Club.

My father was an active member of Maroubra Surf Lifesaving Club and the day after my 13th birthday he took me to join the surf club. I remain an active member to this day. Maroubra is one of Australia's first surf clubs and a foundation member of Surf Life Saving Australia, with arguably the greatest competitive history of any club in Australia when it comes to national champions and Olympic representatives.

Local legend is that Maroubra is an Aboriginal word for 'windy place' and with an easterly aspect Maroubra catches all winds and swells. This regularly produces powerful, unforgiving surf conditions, which means that Maroubra lifesavers are often tested and need to be superbly trained to protect the safety of the public each summer. I have always said that the best management course I ever did was being in charge of 15 lifesavers on patrol at Maroubra when that surf was menacing. By becoming involved in the management of this community organisation, I was inspired to greater heights of community activism that led me to this place and the great honour of representing the Australian Labor Party, and the people of New South Wales, in the Australian Senate.

Along the way I have had the pleasure of working with some of the unsung heroes of my local community and our state. I have seen people risk their lives in treacherous seas to save another. I have worked with people who give every spare second of their time to ensuring our kids can handle themselves in the surf, or training others in how to resuscitate a life. These are the people who personify community and make Australia a proud but safe nation of coastal dwellers.

In 2006 I had the honour of being President of Maroubra Surf Lifesaving Club in its centenary year, a milestone for our club, our community, and something that I will cherish forever. I have also been active in the Police and Community Youth Clubs movement and worked with many volunteers who try to prevent kids who have come from broken homes or tough financial circumstances from going off the rails, and to help them get back on track if they do. The PCYC and surf lifesaving movements gave me the discipline and passion to work hard for my community, and I am pleased to be able to acknowledge today the great work of their many members in the community.

During my days as an economics student at the University of New South Wales, I often questioned the neoclassical view of economics and efficiency of markets producing optimal social outcomes without accounting for the realities of life, factors such as intergenerational poverty, mental illness or discrimination—the human factors which quite often cannot be modelled or predicted yet are the bread and butter of the work of governments. In the union movement I found a vocation that allowed my beliefs to be put into practice.

For 10 years I had the great honour of serving the members of Australia's oldest and proudest trade union, the Australian Workers Union. John Curtin once described the AWU as 'the greatest organisation of labour that our country has known'. I believe he was right. Over 125 years, the AWU has advanced the incomes, conditions and lifestyles of working Australians and their families, and it continues to do so today. As an organiser I represented workers in a diverse range of industries. This role gave me a thorough appreciation of the issues and challenges facing business, workers and their families. I travelled extensively throughout New South Wales, meeting rural workers and viewing the importance of industry to regional economies and communities.

When I began as an official, I was part of a rare breed of university educated recruits to union officialdom. This period marked a change in union culture and practice, driven by the Australian Council of Trade Unions and put into practice at the AWU by the state secretary, Russ Collison. Russ is a person who has devoted his entire working life to advancing the interests of his fellow members and workers. He has led the AWU through tough times and ensured the union remained united and a strong voice for its members in New South Wales. I thank Russ for his trust and confidence in me.

As an official of Unions NSW I was fortunate to work with a group of people who changed the face of progressive workplace and political campaigning in this country. When the Howard government Work Choices legislation became law, it allowed the most vulnerable workers in all industries to be forced to negotiate as individuals, exploiting that natural power imbalance that exists when employer and employee try to strike an economic bargain—or, as the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, once described it: 'Upon all ordinary occasions, the master shall have the advantage in the dispute with the individual worker and force the latter into compliance with their terms.' Unfortunately, Work Choices allowed many employers to force young workers, the unskilled, part-timers and women into compliance with terms below those traditionally established as fair and reasonable by independent umpires. I remember, during this time, the phone calls from the parents of those young retail workers, asking how it could be possible, in a modern economy like Australia, that their son or daughter could be forced to negotiate, as an individual, an individual contract on a 'take it or leave it' basis that had no overtime for working on weekends, no shift penalties for working at night and no minimum engagement.

Work Choices allowed these deals to be made. When the reality set in, we were challenged by the visionary leader of the New South Wales union movement, John Robertson, to develop a campaign that would change the views of union members, the wider community and this law. The result was the Your Rights at Work campaign. Never before had our nation seen a workplace and political campaign so carefully planned, skilfully targeted and delivered with such discipline. The Your Rights at Work campaign changed the face of campaigning, it changed community sentiment and it changed a government. But, most importantly, it also changed the lives of the marginalised and the vulnerable in our workplaces and restored their rights. I am proud to have been part of this historic movement for social change.

At Unions NSW I had the privilege of being an advocate for the thousands of low-paid workers in New South Wales in the annual minimum wage review cases in the Industrial Relations Commission. Through these cases, we sought to lift the minimum wage to ensure the incomes of the low paid kept pace with the cost of living. Each year, these large employer associations opposed our application and claimed that granting an extra $18 a week to cleaners, hotel workers, childcare workers and the like would result in job losses. But they could never present any credible economic evidence to back their claims, and such wage increases never did destroy jobs. In fact, in all of the years that I was involved in minimum wage cases, the economy grew, jobs were created and profits in these industries grew—probably because a few extra dollars in the pockets of the low paid ended up being spent in the local economy.

Minimum wage cases require detailed evidence of the plight of low-paid workers. Very brave workers assisted by telling the stories of their week-to-week battle to earn enough money to feed and clothe their family. For these people, a meal at a restaurant, a night at the movies or a family holiday are considered a luxury and a rare occurrence. These are the hardworking Australians who rely on us to make workplace laws that ensure their vulnerability cannot be exploited, so they can earn an income that allows them to live. These are the people who rely on us to establish a taxation system that is fair and ensures that the incentive to work is not crowded out by welfare.

It was my great privilege to work with the many members and officials of the union movement. I pay tribute to the leaders, officials and members of these great organisations for their commitment to a better life for workers and their families.

Labor is Australia's party of progress. We are the party of the Snowy Mountains scheme, the party of Medicare, the party of superannuation and the party of native title. The Labor platform, and its embodiment in policy, represents progress—progress for workers and their families, progress for communities and progress for our nation. Labor is the party of economic growth with a fair society. We are the party that ensures that the plight of my grandfather no longer occurs in our workplaces. Progress involves an understanding of the great economic and social challenges our nation faces and the resolve to deal with them. This approach is evident in the Labor government's policy to deal with the biggest economic and social challenge of our generation—the challenge of mitigating the effects of human induced global warming on our economy and our society whilst protecting the livelihoods of Australian workers and businesses.

As a person who regularly enjoys our beautiful coastline and beaches, I am concerned about the scientific evidence of ocean warming and its effects. Over the last 25 years I have competed at many Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, the 'Aussies', as they are affectionately known. This annual event is the largest sporting event in our nation. It attracts thousands of competitors from each state and ploughs millions of dollars into the local hosting economy. In 1992 the Aussies were held at Collaroy Beach north of Sydney. It is no longer possible to hold this event at Collaroy or many of Sydney's other beautiful beaches. Quite simply there is no longer enough sand on the beach to run the events.

In March this year the New South Wales Surf Life Saving Championships were held in Kingscliff in the far north of New South Wales. Participants and supporters would not have been aware that in November last year Tweed Shire Council received about $600,000 from the New South Wales government's Natural Disaster Relief Arrangements to restore Kingscliff Beach due to beach erosion. Only four weeks ago the sand that had been deposited was wiped out. The council has again had to spend almost $400,000 sandbagging the local surf club and caravan park and now faces a $3 million plus bill to pump sand from the Tweed River onto the beach to save them from inundation.

Scientists tell us that the warming of our oceans is raising sea levels and even with urgent mitigation this trend looks set to continue long term. We cannot solely attribute these specific events to climate change. Indeed, inappropriate coastal development over the last 100 years in many coastal communities has resulted in an ongoing history of erosion and property damage. But scientists tell us that sea level rise and more extreme weather events as a result of climate change will have further negative impacts. With an increasing frequency of high sea level events expected into the future, this scientific evidence should sound the alarm. At the very least, it should justify mitigation action by our national government. The longer we wait to tackle climate change, the greater the cost. As a father of two young children, I do not want to risk their opportunity to enjoy the beauty of our magnificent coastline. I do not want to saddle them with the burden of unbearable costs to mitigate the damage of climate change. Most importantly, I do not want to have to tell them that I, as a legislator and custodian of the welfare of the people of New South Wales, did not have the courage, skill and foresight to deal with an issue that will, more likely than not, reduce the quality of their life and the natural environment that they inherit. I am committed to working with my fellow senators and MPs to deal with this great challenge for our nation and our world.

I live in a seaside community that values healthy lifestyles. While I have enjoyed the benefits of good health, I realise there are a large number of Australians who every day suffer the consequences of unhealthy living. My wife Rachel is a nurse at a major public hospital. She regularly lets me know of the burden preventable disease has on our hospital system. I am told that the increasing prevalence of obesity, heart disease and diabetes impacts on the workload of all health professionals and also on the wallets of Australian taxpayers. The preventable nature of major illness in Australia should be cause for concern for any government. With an ageing population and greater prevalence of unhealthy living amongst Australians, we face the prospect of an ever-increasing health budget related to preventable disease. There is more to be done in this area and I look forward to doing all I can to ensure more Australians, particularly those from low-income households, enjoy the benefits of a healthy life and reduce the burdens on our health system.

My election to the Senate was achieved with the support and hard work of others. I thank the officers and staff of the Senate for their dedication to good government and their assistance since my election. I acknowledge and thank my predecessor, Mike Forshaw, a diligent and honourable Labor man who served in this place with distinction. I thank him for his friendship and wise advice. I owe a deep gratitude to the members of the New South Wales Labor Party, whose hard work and commitment to equality and justice is an inspiration and a privilege to represent. I particularly recognise those in rural and regional New South Wales who, against the odds, never waver in their commitment to uphold the fine ideals of our party. To my former colleagues in the New South Wales Labor Party office, whose hard work and ability is unending and admirable, I say: thank you for your support and friendship. I thank Andrew Gray and all of those whom I had the pleasure of working with at Mallesons Stephen Jaques for new insights and for sharpening my legal skills and knowledge.

I wish to recognise my wife's very large family, the Casamentos, in particular Joe and Lis, and thank them for their support, their warmth and their dedication to their family; I am honoured to be part of it. To my beautiful daughters, Amelie and Scarlett, who remind me every day that there is no greater joy than being their father and receiving their unconditional love, I hope to make you both proud of my work as a senator. I thank and pay tribute to my beautiful wife, Rachel, for her eternal support, patience, wise advice and love. My election to this place is a testament to your faith and to our partnership.

We are a nation with a great tradition of democracy, peace, equality and good government. I look forward to working hard in this tradition, on behalf of the people of New South Wales, to ensure progress for them, their families and their communities.